Birding in Italy

Join Ed Hutchings as he reveals the birding delights found in two of Italy’s most beautiful regions, Tuscany and Umbria, neighbours with very different characters, and birds, to discover

Tuscany

Lake Massaciuccoli  Universal Images Group North America LLC/DeAgostini/Alamy

Lake Massaciuccoli

Universal Images Group North America LLC/DeAgostini/Alamy

The tourist brochure view of Tuscany as an idyll of olive groves, vineyards, hill towns and frescoed churches may be one dimensional, but Tuscany is indeed the essence of Italy in many ways. The national language evolved from the Tuscan dialect, a supremacy ensured by Dante – who wrote the Divine Comedy in the vernacular of his birthplace, Florence – and Tuscan writers such as Petrarch and Boccaccio.

And the era we know as the Renaissance, which played so large a role in forming the culture, not just of Italy but of Europe as a whole, is associated more strongly with this part of the country than with anywhere else. Florence was the most active centre of the Renaissance, flourishing principally through the all-powerful patronage of the Medici dynasty.

Every eminent artistic figure from Giotto onwards – Masaccio, Brunelleschi, Alberti, Donatello, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo – is represented here, in an unrivalled gathering of churches, galleries and museums. Tuscany is also rightly renowned for its wine, but many are unaware that it is a brilliant region for birding too. The region has no fewer than 16 Important Bird Areas (IBAs) among its beautiful scenery.

Golden Eagle by William Leaman/Alamy

Golden Eagle by William Leaman/Alamy

Sharing a border with Emilia-Romagna in the north of the region, the large, mountainous area in the northern Apennines from Passo del Cerreto to Monte Caligi is worth exploring. It includes broadleaved (mainly beech Fagus) and coniferous woodlands, alpine grasslands and rocky areas, crossed by rivers and streams. The area is important for breeding species of forest and mountain including Nightjar, Tawny Owl, Honey Buzzard, Golden Eagle, Green Woodpecker, Blue Tit and Rock Thrush. The most paramount threat is the abandonment of traditional cultivation and cattle rearing activities, with consequent loss of pastures and grasslands. A National Park is proposed in the area.

To the southwest lie the Apuan Alps, east of the towns of Massa and Carrara, particularly rich in rocky areas and alpine grasslands. The main land uses are grazing, nature conservation and marble extraction. Key species include Golden Eagle and Chough and it is a significant breeding site for montane passerines such as Rock Thrush and Tawny Pipit. The principal threat is from quarrying the famous Carrera marble, used for some of the most remarkable buildings found in Ancient Rome.

Montagu’s Harrier by Arco Images GmbH/Alamy

Montagu’s Harrier by Arco Images GmbH/Alamy

Further south lies the shallow Lake Massaciuccoli, close to the town of Viareggio, four kilometres from the Tyrrhenian coast. The lake is surrounded by a belt of reeds (Phragmites) of variable width and there is a large freshwater marshland (padule) adjacent to the lake on the north side, consisting of stands of sedge (Cladium) with scattered pools and canals. The surrounding areas are intensively farmed, but it is a vital breeding site for reedbed species, notably Bittern (the most important breeding location in Italy) and was once a key staging spot for the critically endangered Slender-billed Curlew. Formerly it was paramount for wintering water birds, especially Coot (tens of thousands), whose decline was due specially to hunting and a reduction in the extent of submerged vegetation. Other key species include Little Bittern, Bittern, Purple Heron, Black Tern, Marsh Harrier and Moustached, Reed and Savi's Warblers. A few Ferruginous Duck winter. The chief threat is the intensification of agriculture in the surrounding area, which is leading to water pollution, lowering of the water table and shrinkage of wetlands. There is a LIPU reserve on the east side of the lake.

Immediately to the south of the lake and east of the city of Pisa, the wetland complex of Migliarino-San Rossore comprises open (San Rossore) and wooded (San Rossore and Migliarino) coastal marshes, the estuaries of two large rivers (Arno and Serchio) and a tract of very shallow sea offshore. There are dunes between the marshes and the sea and extensive arable/pasture areas at San Rossore. This is a significant wetland for migrating and wintering waders including Jack Snipe.

Inland to the east, the freshwater wetland of Fucecchio Marsh, a few kilometres south of the town of Montecatini, consists of reedbeds, open water, wet woodland (Bosco di Chiusi) and surrounding cultivation. This is a vital wetland for breeding herons, such as Little Egret, Little Bittern, Night and Squacco Herons, and reedbed passerines, such as Moustached and Savi’s Warblers.

Continuing eastward brings one to a complex of small freshwater pools, wetlands, abandoned pits and farmland on a plain west of Florence used primarily as game reserves, though farming is the most important human activity away from the pools. It is especially paramount for its Night Heron colony, though Ferruginous Duck is also found on passage. Further east, and sharing a border with Umbria, the Casentinesi Forest National Park is a large tract of broadleaved and coniferous forest in the northern Apennines, dominated by beech (Fagus) and fir (Abies). The predominant land use is forestry, but it is a significant breeding site for woodland species such as Nightjar, Tawny Owl, Green Woodpecker, Blue Tit, Woodlark, Subalpine Warbler, Song Thrush, Robin, Firecrest and Rock Bunting.

To the south, the Arezzo Heathlands, a hilly area predominately covered by heathland, can be divided into three subsites: Alpe di Poti, Monte Ginezzo and Pian di Scò. The foremost land uses are forestry, hunting and heath cutting. This is a vital heathland for breeding raptors, such as Montagu’s Harrier, and passerines, especially Sylvia warblers, such as Subalpine and Dartford.

Further south, on the Umbrian border, the two freshwater lakes of Chiusi and Montepulciano are found fifteen kilometres east of the village of Montepulciano. The lakes are surrounded by extensive reedbeds, cultivated land and small broadleaved woodlands, and there are also some small artificial ponds called Vasche di Dolciano. Water levels fluctuate greatly during the year. It is an important area for breeding Little Bittern, wintering Cormorant and for a mixed heronry at Lago di Chiusi that includes Squacco and Night Herons. Herons and Cormorants roost at Vasche di Dolciano. A couple of pairs of Ferruginous Duck breed annually and a handful winter too. Moustached Warbler is resident.

To the west, the Crete Senesi is a hilly area southeast of the town of Siena. There are large tracts of farmland, small woodlands, gorges and highly eroded slopes. The major threat is agricultural intensification, which destroys the eroded landforms that are paramount nest sites for breeding raptors such as Lanner Falcon. It is also a significant spot for Stone Curlew.

Further west, the middle valley of the River Cecina lies about ten kilometres south of the town of Volterra and comprises a large broadleaved evergreen woodland called Berignone and a stretch of the River Cecina. Varied habitats include rocky cliffs, rivers, streams, grasslands and farmland. The valley is notable for its breeding raptors and woodland passerines such as Subalpine Warbler. Ever further west and back on the Tyrrhenian coast, the Bolgheri Marsh and Tombolo is a wetland about ten kilometres south of the village of Cecina. Habitats include beaches and dunes, macchia, wet woodlands and grasslands, and open water, surrounded by farmland. The wetland is notable for breeding and wintering water birds, as well as migrating waders such as Golden Plover. A few Ferruginous Duck overwinter.

Offshore, the Tuscan Archipelago - seven small islands between Tuscany and Corsica (Montecristo, Giannutri, Gorgona, Capraia, Elba, Giglio and Pianosa) - is chiefly covered by macchia, garrigue, sclerophyllous scrub, pine woodlands and rocky cliffs. Some have evergreen woodlands, grasslands and agricultural land.

The islands support breeding Cory’s and Yelkouan Shearwaters, Audouin's and Caspian Gulls, as well as Shag. Other key species include Peregrine, Marmora’s, Subalpine, Sardinian, Spectacled and Dartford Warblers, Blue Rock Thrush and Black-eared Wheatear. The fundamental threats are the disturbance of breeding seabirds by tourists, especially using motorboats, the development of tourist resorts and associated infrastructure and the burning of vegetation.

To the south, the large wetland of Diaccia Botrona on the coast, close to the village of Castglione della Pescaia, was formerly freshwater but is now brackish due to seawater inflow. The main habitats are large reedbeds, open water and a small coniferous wood. This is a vital wetland for wintering and migrating water birds (more than 15,000) including Wigeon, as well as breeding Little Egret and Bittern. There is a heronry in the wood. A couple of Ferruginous Duck usually winter. The prime threat is from aquaculture, which is causing saltwater intrusion along the southern border.

Further south. the Maremma Regional Park comprises the wooded Uccellina Mountains, mostly covered by Pinus and macchia, as well as the large brackish Trappola Marsh with very little vegetation, mainly Salicornia, and the mouth of the River Ombrone, about ten kilometres south of the town of Grosseto. Habitats include rocky sea cliffs and beaches.

The park is important for wintering water birds (especially Greylag Goose), though threats include coastal erosion, disturbance of breeding and wintering birds by tourists who walk among the dunes, the poor water quality of the River Ombrone, which affects the Trappola Marsh and overgrazing, which threatens Stone Curlew.

Tuscany could provide a renaissance in Italian birding. And the landscapes are simply exquisite.

For more information please visit www.visittuscany.com and www.lipu.it


Umbria

Lake Trasimeno parkerphotography/Alamy

Lake Trasimeno
parkerphotography/Alamy

Often referred to as ‘the green heart of Italy’, Umbria is a predominantly beautiful and – despite the many visitors – largely unspoiled region of rolling hills, woods, streams and valleys. Within its borders it also contains a dozen or so classic hill towns, each resolutely individual and crammed with artistic and architectural treasures to rival bigger and more famous cities. To the east, pastoral countryside gives way to more rugged scenery, none better than the dramatic twists and turns of the Valnerina and the high mountain landscapes of the Parco Nazionale dei Monti Sibillini.

Historically, Umbria is best known as the birthplace of several saints, St Benedict and St Francis of Assisi being the most famous, and for a religious tradition that earned the region such names as Umbra santa, Umbra mistica and la terra dei santi (‘the land of saints’). The landscape itself has contributed much to this mystical reputation and even on a fleeting trip it’s impossible to miss the strange quality of the Umbrian light, an oddly luminous silver haze that hangs over the hills.

After years as an impoverished backwater, Umbria has capitalised on its charms. Foreign acquisition of rural property is now as rapid as it was in Tuscany three decades ago, though outsiders have done nothing to curb the region’s renewed sense of identity and youthful enthusiasm, nor to blunt the artistic initiatives that have turned Umbria into one of the most flourishing cultural centres in Italy.

Most visitors head for Perugia, Assisi – the latter with its extraordinary frescoes by Giotto in the Basilica di San Francesco – or Orvieto, whose Duomo is one of the greatest Gothic buildings in the country. For a taste of the region’s more understated charms, it’s best to concentrate on lesser known places such as Todi, an increasingly chic but still unspoiled hill town; Gubbio, ranked as the most perfect medieval centre in Italy, and Spoleto, for many people the outstanding Umbrian town.

Piano Grande by Jeffrey Nolan/Alamy

Piano Grande by Jeffrey Nolan/Alamy

Although there are few unattractive parts of the Umbrian landscape (the factories of Terni and the Tiber Valley being the largest blots), some areas are especially enticing: the Valnerina, a beautiful valley surrounded by mountains and remote hilltop villages; the Piano Grande, a vast, featureless plain best visited in spring, when it’s carpeted with wild flowers; and Lago Trasimeno, the largest lake in the Italian peninsula, with plenty of opportunities for swimming and, naturally, birding.

The Valnerina is the most beautiful part of Umbria. Strictly translated as the ‘little valley of the Nera’, it effectively refers to the whole eastern part of the region, a self-contained area of high mountains, poor communications, steep wooded valleys, upland villages and vast stretches of barren nothingness. Italian Wolves still roam the summit ridges and the area is a genuine ‘forgotten corner’, deserted farms everywhere bearing witness to a century of emigration.

Mountains in the region are 1,500 metres high, creeping up as one moves east to about 2,500 metres in the wonderful Monti Sibillini in the central Apennines, the most outstanding parts of which fall under the protection of the Parco Nazionale dei Monti Sibillini. The Monti Sibillini hold large tracts of broadleaved woodland and especially extensive alpine grasslands. The main land uses are nature conservation, tourism and forestry.

Chough by Lewis Thomson/Alamy

Chough by Lewis Thomson/Alamy

The mountains are a breeding site for four of the ten species of the Eurasian high montane biome, as well as raptors and owls. Key species include Rock Partridge, Lanner Falcon, Red-billed and Yellow-billed Choughs, Wallcreeper, Alpine Accentor and White-winged Snowfinch. Recreation, tourism and the building of new infrastructure (e.g. roads) are the main threats to the area.

It’s difficult to explore with any sort of plan (unless one sticks to the Nera), and the best approach is to follow your nose, poking into small valleys, tracing high country lanes to remote hamlets. More deliberately, one could make for Vallo di Nera, the most archetypal of the fortified villages that pop up along the Lower Nera. Medieval Triponzo is a natural focus of communications, little more than a quaint staging post and fortified tower (and a better target than modernish Cerreto nearby).

The eerie, expansive Piano Grande, twenty kilometres east of Norcia, is an extraordinary prairie ringed by bare, whaleback mountains and stretching, uninterrupted by tree, hedge or habitation, for miles and miles. A decade or so ago, it was all but unknown: now, in summer at least, it can be disconcertingly busy. It’s much photographed, especially in spring when it’s ablaze with wild flowers of every description. Prairie species such as wagtails, pipits, larks and wheatears are everywhere.

The most tempting destination around Perugia – whose surroundings are generally lacklustre – is Lago Trasimeno, an ideal spot to hole up in for a few days. The freshwater and eutrophic 12,000-hectare lake is about thirty kilometres west of Perugia and is easy to get to on public transport. The largest lake in central Italy, and the fourth largest in the country, though one would not think so to look at it, never deeper than seven metres – hence bath like warm water in summer.

There is a belt of Phragmites of variable width all around the lakeshore and submerged beds of waterweed, such as Potamogeton and Ceratophyllum, offshore. Wet woodlands of willow, alder and elm, as well as grasslands, are also present. Tourism is the main activity, while pig farming and intensive agriculture dominate the surrounding area.

The lake is an area of international importance for wintering Cormorant and other water birds collectively (more than 20,000 occur on a regular basis, mainly Coot) and for the presence of a mixed heronry. The number of wintering birds has greatly increased (especially Coot) following the declaration of the Regional Park in 1995 and the lowering of water levels. Other key species include breeding Little Egret, Black-crowned Night Heron and Squacco Heron.

The main threats to the lake are numerous, including the pollution of the wetland by nutrients and pesticides from the surrounding agricultural areas, the reduction in reedbed extent due to erosion, the creation of new beaches and arable land, fires in the reedbeds and the extraction of water for agriculture. Coypu, a non-native aquatic rodent, has dramatically reduced the extent of floating Nymphaea waterlilies.

A winning combination of tree covered hills to the north, Umbria’s subtle light and placid lapping water produces some magical moments, but on overcast and squally days the mood can turn melancholy. Not all the reed lined shore is uniformly pretty either; steer clear of the northern coast and head for the stretches south of Magione and Castiglione if one is after relative peace and quiet.

Lago Alviano is one of the largest WWF reserves and includes all the typical habitats of freshwater wetlands: swamps, ponds, marshes, water meadows and a hygrophilous woodland, among the largest in central Italy. The reserve was created in 1990 to save these habitats, many of which disappeared elsewhere more than a century ago. This makes it a special place. In fact, with its nine hundred hectares, it protects its precious biodiversity from hunting and property speculation, too.

The reserve is part of the larger Umbria regional park which also includes Corbara Lake and Forello Gorges. Part of the reserve includes agricultural fields. The hygrophilous woodland itself holds a mixture of alders, poplars and thirty-year-old willows with proliferating ivy. The water vegetation is rich and varied with large blankets of Potamogeton, Najas and Ceratophyllum.

Alviano is most famous for its rich bird diversity, which includes Mallard, Teal, Shoveler, Wigeon, Cormorant, herons, Bittern, Little Bittern, Marsh Harrier, Osprey, Glossy Ibis and Spoonbill. There are also many passerines, particularly Siskin and thrushes. The mammal population comprises Crested Porcupine, Red Fox, Wild Boar and, recently, European Ground Squirrel. There are two nature trails: the first is circular, about 1,500 meters long, and easily accessible (not suitable for wheelchairs and pushchairs). Several hides and an observation tower are located along the trail. A second trail runs along the river and marshes, ideal for more enthusiastic birders and photographers. A picnic area at the entrance is available for visitors.

The 157-hectare freshwater wetland of Colfiorito in the central Apennines, close to the eponymous village, is fringed by a reedbed and includes the surrounding hilly areas of Piani di Ricciano, Piani di Arvello, and Piano di Annifo. It’s an important breeding site for reedbed species, especially Bittern. Other key species include Little Bittern, Montagu's Harrier and Lanner Falcon. The main threats are agricultural intensification (leading to wetland drainage and water pollution with nutrients and pesticides), hunting around the wetland and a road building project which will cross the area.

Italy's green heart, Umbria is a land unto itself, the only Italian region that borders neither the sea nor another country. Removed from outside influences, it has kept alive many of Italy's old-world traditions. One will see grandmothers in aprons making pasta by hand and front doors that haven’t been locked in a century. You’ll also see plenty of birds, amongst some of Italy’s loveliest landscapes.

For more information please see – www.umbriatourism.it/en



Source: birdingitaly

Birding in Valencia

Often overlooked as a birdwatching destination, the Spanish city of Valencia offers much more than just sun…

Words: David Chandler

Flamingoes taking flight over the salt lakes at Santa Pola - Colin Majury/Alamy

Flamingoes taking flight over the salt lakes at Santa Pola - Colin Majury/Alamy

We touched down in Alicante, on a low-cost flight loaded with holiday-makers. Think Alicante and you probably think beach resorts and Brits abroad, fish and chips by the Med, and pale, basted flesh, frying slowly on golden sand. But there are other things you can do here – and that definitely includes birding.

After their usual fanfare Ryanair told us to have a good holiday. We of course, weren’t going on holiday. This was a work trip, and hard work at that, out in a heatwave watching birds. Someone’s got to do it…

About Valencia

Valencia is both a city and a region in the east of Spain. It’s made up of three provinces: Castellon, Valencia and Alicante. With mountains, wetlands, steppe and coast, 22 natural parks, and more than 400 bird species in a year, a trip here could get you more than a decent tan. You could visit specifically to see birds and some people do just that. It’s also somewhere you might find yourself on a package holiday, and if you do, you may decide to take some time out from the Brits abroad club. You could hire a car and find your own birds or, better, hire a local guide. They know where the birds are and you won’t have to drive. And the chances are you will see much more if you buy in some local knowledge. I visited in June, with local knowledge provided by guides from La Asociación de Guías de Birding de la Comunidad Valenciana (birdingcv.com), an association of local wildlife guides.

Wetland birding

Don’t miss the wetlands. Try El Fondo or Les Salines de Santa Pola Natural Parks in Alicante province, or Albufera de Valencia Natural Park (just outside Valencia city). We started at Santa Pola, taking advantage of the trail and hides at Torre del Pinet. There was plenty of heat and plenty of Greater Flamingos, a species we saw again and again. At almost 2,500 hectares (6,100 acres) this is a big site, with active salt pans and islands made for birds, adorned with Avocets, Flamingos and Slender-billed Gulls. The latter are common here, but the bill isn’t slender – it is long and that makes it look slender. In flight, their wing pattern is very much like that of a Black-headed Gull. There were Common, Sandwich and Little Terns, Black-winged Stilts, Kentish Plover…birds to the front and dunes, pines and the Mediterranean behind.

Then to El Fondo, another 2,400 hectares (5,900 acres) of quality birding. This Natural Park is zoned, with open access to some areas, restricted access to others, and none at all to some parts. There are hides, a boardwalk, and a substantial visitor centre, and it’s all free. With quality wetlands come quality herons – Night, Squacco, and Purple, and Little Bittern. White-headed Duck were easy, and there are no Ruddy Duck hybrids now – that’s good conservation news for this endangered species. Great Reed Warbler chuntered away, a Water Rail called, a Fan-tailed Warbler zitted, and a distant, buzzing reeling turned into my first Savi’s Warbler for a long time.

The vulnerable and localised Marbled Duck was a doddle, with two of them near the visitor centre, black and grey bills, dark eye patches, and yes, marbled plumage. Crested Coot was simple too, the neck-collar meant it was an introduced bird, but there are ‘proper’ wild ones here too. And then, a walk on a wonderful boardwalk took us to three even more wonderful Collared Pratincoles, via some close flyby Whiskered Terns.

As the day faded we walked the planks of a narrow boardwalk between towering reeds, hoping for a Lesser Flamingo. The African pinky didn’t show, but 14 gorgeous Black-necked Grebes were no small compensation.

A winter visit could be rewarded with Greater Spotted Eagle – three to five overwinter here, as has a single Lesser Spotted Eagle. We never made it to Albufera de Valencia but that covers about 21,000 hectares (about 52,000 acres)!

Dry birding

Pale-morph Booted Eagle - blickwinkel/Alamy

Pale-morph Booted Eagle - blickwinkel/Alamy

Think Spain and steppe, bustards and sandgrouse come to mind. There is steppe in Valencia, but not that much – crossing into Albacete province made pain on the plains less likely. Our one Little Bustard was close to the van, walking away, but Great Bustard proved trickier, until one took to flight and let the side down. Come earlier in the year and you could have much better encounters. A cluster of farm buildings was a site for Rock Sparrow, and with a little effort this stripy-headed streakster became real, yellow throat spot and all, adding one more to #My200BirdYear. We saw a cryptic Stone Curlew, Calandra Lark – chunky, with a chunky beak, long, stout legs and black on its neck-sides – and one lark with a large punkish crest. It was a Crested Lark, but was so well-endowed that a new species was proposed – Very Crested Lark!

Lunch was lakeside, with pines, shade and good birds nearby – Red-crested Pochard, up close and obliging White-headed Ducks and Black-necked Grebes, and ubiquitous Flamingos. A more distant raptor morphed from Spanish Imperial Eagle to juvenile Booted Eagle – birds of prey can be tricky! That wasn’t the end of the day’s eagles. With the steppe behind us we headed to our accommodation and were almost there when a big, dark raptor over the ridge forced us to look at it. Its tail was long, 2/3 white and 1/3 black, white at the base – Golden Eagle, the icing on the day.

Mountain birding

Male Great Bustard - imageBROKER/Alamy

Male Great Bustard - imageBROKER/Alamy

More than half of Valencia is sierra or mountains, with the loftiest summits scraping the sky at 1800m (5,900ft), and some mountainous areas a mere 45 minutes out of Valencia city. It was hot, and then it was too hot. But we persevered with the onerous task before us. Multiple Griffon Vultures took command of the sky, one casting a shadow on the rock face. A Golden Oriole sang.

A Cirl Bunting sang. Raven. A couple of distant Crag Martins searched for airborne consumables. A light phase Booted Eagle took centre stage – closing its wings, diving, and repeat. Then its dark phase co-star showed up – smaller, male presumably – and indulged us with a bit of aerial tumbling, small and dark with big and pale. Egyptian Vulture, and then another one scoped on its rock-face nest. Short-toed Eagle. Blue Rock Thrush. And down in the valley a Western Bonelli’s Warbler rattled out its song.

We drove on and searched elsewhere. Black-eared Wheatear – a very nice bird. There was thunder and a bit of rain, but not enough to stop play. Then Spectacled Warbler – my first and one more for #My200BirdYear list.

Our last day in the field had ended. Except it hadn’t. Dinner would have to be even later. The van stopped once more, for a Rock Thrush that stayed in view for 20 minutes or so, a Wryneck, a Black Redstart, a Woodchat Shrike, a plain-faced, yellowish warbler – Melodious Warbler, and, dapper, distant and in no hurry at all, a Black Wheatear.

Tawny Pipit - Saverio Gatto/Alamy

Tawny Pipit - Saverio Gatto/Alamy

And more…

We visited in June, which isn’t the best time of year. Valencia sits on a major flyway – imagine a visit during spring or autumn migration. We didn’t pay much attention to the 400km coastline or the Mediterranean Sea either (in the winter the Gulf of Valencia is important for Balearic Shearwaters).

There aren’t many birdwatchers in Valencia, but there is a desire to develop bird and wildlife-based tourism. This really can help conservation, as local people see birdwatchers bringing money into the local economy. So if you go, make sure they do see. You could even wear your binoculars when you stop off somewhere for lunch or a coffee…

Tancat de La Pipa

This nature reserve is a small part of the Albufera de Valencia Natural Park, which, in common with other coastal wetlands, has suffered because of excessive nutrients – in this case as a consequence of rice growing, industry and population growth. Tancat de La Pipa is the result of a project that started in 2007 which aimed to improve water quality, restore biodiversity and create space for the public and education.

Forty hectares (99 acres) of rice has become the Natural Park’s biggest wetland reserve. Lagoons were planted with Reeds, Bulrushes, sedges and Lilies to soak up nitrates and phosphates as the incoming water enters the reserve. This helped to create an area which is now the best place in the park for species that are particularly sensitive to water quality, including Red-crested Pochard.

When the project began, local fishermen, farmers and hunters were not entirely supportive. More Mallards and Purple Swamphens would mean more damage to precious rice crops… Perceptions began to change when the project was seen as taking the area back to how it once was, with plenty of shrimps and fish as well as birds. Most of the education work in the reserve starts on a boat in a nearby fishing port. This has made it possible to actively involve local boatmen and to provide them with income. In fact, two new boat trip companies have been created, and the operators are taking a positive interest in some of the birds too!

Local guides have very good relationships with the reserve, so if you do go to Valencia, you may be able to visit.

Some of the other birds…

Hobby / Red-crested Pochard / Purple Swamphen / Mediterranean Gull / Gull-billed Tern / Alpine Swift / Hoopoe / Bee-eater / Roller / Red-rumped Swallow / Tawny Pipit / Penduline Tit / Sardinian Warbler / Iberian Grey Shrike / Spotless Starling / Golden Oriole / Corn Bunting

With thanks to…

Joaquim Tortajada Pons and the Spanish Tourist Office, Rosa Molins Ten and the Valencian Tourism Board, and David Warrington, Ángel Sallent, Pau Lucio, Yanina Maggiotto and Virgilio Beltrán for guiding us.

Sponsors and collaborators: TURESPAÑA, Agència Valenciana del Turisme, Pattrronato Provincial de Turisme València, Patronato Provincial de Turismo Costa Blanca, Asoc. De Guías de Birding CV, Actio Birding, Birdwatching Spain, Valencia Birding, Avanzatours.

North Spain's natural paradise

Varied and unspoiled habitat makes Asturias a must-visit for British birdwatchers.

It would be hard to think of a better slogan for the ecotourism possibilities of an area like Asturias than ‘Natural Paradise’ – that’s exactly what you’ll find in this vibrantly green principality, lapped by the waters of the Cantabrian Sea, and including mountains, forests, and a variety of other biodiverse habitats. In fact, although it only includes 2% of the land area of Spain, it is home to 67% of the country’s species of vertebrates.

Protected natural areas cover more than a third of the principality, including a National Park (Picos de Europa), five nature parks, and a host of other reserves, including Spain’s first marine reserve.

The rich natural environment includes forests such as Muniellos, the largest and best preserved oakwood on the Iberian peninsula and one of the most important forest areas in Europe, while in other areas Beech, Yew and Cork Oak all dominate, each with their corresponding signature species.

Birding in Asturias

A total of 385 bird species have been listed in Asturias, ranging from seabirds such as Storm-petrel and Shag to mountain-dwellers such as the afore-mentioned Wallcreeper.

Perhaps most emblematic among them is the Cantabrian Capercaillie, an endemic subspecies that is a little smaller than the nominate race. Its rarity, and the necessity to protect it, means that sightings are rare, but its forest habitat is shared with species such as Middle Spotted Woodpecker, itself a must-see for British birdwatchers.

In the Picos de Europa, the majestic Lammergeier, or Bearded Vulture, shares the skies above with Golden Eagles, while Wallcreepers, beautiful ‘butterfly birds’, can also be found in the same habitat as well as on cliffs on the coastal plain.

In the central mountains, in the municipalities of Aller, Mieres, Lena, Morcin, Riosa and Ribera de Arriba, birding highlights can include the likes of Griffon Vulture, Hen Harrier, Goshawk, Black Woodpecker, Crag Martin, Alpine Accentor, Dartford Warbler, Alpine Chough, Chough, Snowfinch and Rock Bunting, joined in the summer by Honey Buzzard, Egyptian Vulture, Short-toed Eagle, Booted Eagle, Nightjar, Wryneck, Black-eared Wheatear, Iberian Chiffchaff, Red-backed Shrike, and Western Bonelli’s Warbler.

Coastal areas provide a quite different set of avian attractions. Breeding species along the Gijon coast include Shag and Yellow-legged Gull, while species seen on migration and during the winter include Great Northern Diver, Great, Sooty and Balearic Shearwaters, Leach’s Storm Petrel, Pomarine Skua, Snow Bunting, Dotterel, Tawny Pipit and Scops Owl, while this is also a good area to view migrating seabirds such as large numbers of Gannets.

Best sites

Probably the best single area for birding in Asturias (and one of the best in Spain, a country not short of outstanding sites) is the Ria de Villaviciosa, an estuary and wetland of great international importance.

Here you can watch the likes of Osprey, a wide range of waders, Stone-curlew, large numbers of seabirds and wildfowl, Purple Heron, Spoonbill, Bittern and Squacco Heron, while the Eo Estuary is home to a similar range of birds, but is particularly rich in wildfowl and rarer grebes such as the Black-necked.

Finally, a visit to the La Reina Lookout is a great idea if you want to see and photograph birds of prey at relatively close quarters. Griffon, Egyptian and Bearded Vultures are fed here, and it also attracts Red Kites, Golden Eagles, and corvids.

Other wildlife

It isn’t only birdlife that will thrill you on a visit to the principality, though. Land mammals found here include Brown Bear, Wolf, Otter and Ibex, and as many as 25 species of cetaceans are found offshore – combined with the often breathtaking scenery they ensure that you’ll rarely be able to put your binoculars or camera down!

It all adds up to exactly what we began by talking about. A wealth of birds and biodiversity in general, in a beautiful, unspoiled landscape. A Natural Paradise indeed.

Love birdwatching. Love Spain

Pic: Jose Luis Sanchez

Pic: Jose Luis Sanchez

Anyone who has not yet been introduced to the avian delights of Spain is someone to be envied indeed.

Spain is deservedly one of the most popular birding destinations in the Western Palearctic with an excellent range of birds throughout the year and habitats ranging from 3,400 metre mountains to lowland marismas and semi-desert.

More than 630 bird species to observe and 200 species are possible on a spring visit, including such Iberian specialities as Marbled and White-headed Ducks, Black-winged Kite, Cinereous Vulture, Spanish Imperial Eagle, Western Swamphen, Red-knobbed Coot, Red-necked Nightjar and Iberian Magpie.

What’s more, it is all within three hours flying time from the UK, making it ideal for those who like the idea of a long weekend birding abroad. A short birdwatching trip in Spain would arguably be easier and probably cheaper than some of the more remote UK locations. Moreover, you may rest assured that the weather will certainly be more reliable.

Here are five key birding areas in Spain that you can visit whilst booking directly via the Blue Sky Wildlife website:

Extremadura

Pic: Steve West

Pic: Steve West

The Caceres-Trujillo Steppes of Extremadura are famous for bustards, but there is also a good range of other species present including a healthy Lesser Kestrel colony in the town of Caceres. Much of the once very extensive, undulating plains around and between these two towns have been lost to agriculture, but the remnants support more grassland birds than anywhere else in Spain. The plains consist of dry grassland and farmland with patches of scrub and, in some parts, small pinewoods.

In addition to bustards, these plains support Black-belled and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Stone Curlew and Calandra Lark. In areas of open woodland and scrub there are Roller, Bee-eater, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Iberian Magpie and Iberian Grey Shrike. Raptors include Montagu’s Harrier, three species of kite, Spanish Imperial, Booted and Short-toed Eagles, as well as Cinereous and Griffon Vultures. In the towns, there are breeding White Stork and Pallid Swift, while wetter areas have Cattle and Little Egrets, as well as Whiskered Tern. Black Stork is regular on passage, as is Crane in winter.

Pic: Jose Luis Sanchez

Pic: Jose Luis Sanchez

The best-known raptor site in Spain, Monfrague National Park, covers a stretch of the Tagus Valley in the Extremadura region and has much more besides, making it one of the most popular birding sites in the country. Habitats range from open grassland, wooded valleys and scrub-covered hillsides to high rocky crags. Part of the area has been planted with non-native trees, but much native woodland remains as well as dehesa, a habitat almost confined to Iberia, consisting of dry and open pasture with scattered patches of Cork and Holm Oaks.

The raptors of Monfrague number around 20 breeding species, including three vultures, and is probably the world’s best site for Cinereous Vulture and Spanish Imperial Eagle. There are also four other eagles, three kites and two harriers.

One of the best spots is the pinnacle of Penafalcon where vultures breed alongside other raptors, and there are also Alpine and White-rumped Swifts, Chough, Blue Rock Thrush, Crag Martin, and the other major birding attraction of the park, Black Stork. Cinereous Vulture, as well as Golden and Spanish Imperial Eagles, are probably best seen along the ridge of the Sierra de la Corchuelas.

Other birds of the upland areas include Red-rumped Swallow and Black-eared Wheatear, while the wooden valleys of the rivers Tagus and Tietar are home to Great Spotted Cuckoo, Iberian Magpie, Iberian Grey and Woodchat Shrikes and Bee-eater. The reservoirs hold Cattle Egret, as well as Purple and Night Herons, and the dry plains contain Little Bustard and Stone Curlew.

Operators: Birding Extremadura Centre, Birding the Strait, Inglorious Bustards, Birding Extremadura, Birding in Spain.

Doñana National Park

Pic Steve West

Pic Steve West

Despite its limited access, this area of over 1,300 square kilometres is one of the most famous birding destinations in Europe, with a wide range of breeding birds and internationally important numbers of waterfowl in winter and on passage.

Much of the park is formed by the marismas of the Guadalquivir River, a large area of shallow lagoons and seasonally flooded salt flats protected from the sea by a large sandbar. Inland, there are more dunes, Mediterranean scrub and Stone Pine and Cork Oak woodlands, each habitat having its own characteristic birds.

Breeders include a variety of herons, Spoonbill and Iberian specialities such as Marbled Duck, Red-knobbed Coot and Western Swamphen. In drier areas, breeding raptors include Red and Black Kites, Short-toed, Spanish Imperial and Booted Eagles, as well as Lesser Kestrel. Black-winged Kite occurs in the El Acebuche area.

The scrub has warblers, chats, shrikes and larks, with Iberian Magpie, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Crested Tit and Hawfinch among the many woodland birds. In spring and autumn, passage seabirds can be seen offshore including Audouin’s Gull, whilst the flooded areas inland hold Crane and large numbers of waterfowl.

Operators: Birding the Straight, Inglorious Bustards, Andalucía Nature Trips, Wild Doñana.

Gibraltar

The city of Gibraltar includes a spectacular giant limestone rock which rises 426 metres out of the Mediterranean off the southern tip of Spain. Many birders visit here to see Barbary Partridge, which only occurs elsewhere in Europe on Sardinia, and to experience at least a little of the heaviest raptor passage in Europe. Such an experience may not just involve distant views either, for in favourable weather conditions it is possible for many birds to pass close by.

During the autumn, almost twice as many birds pass over Gibraltar than its nearest rival, the Bosporus, including 100,000 Honey Buzzards, 2,000 Egyptian Vultures, 5,000 Short-toed Eagles and 5,000 Booted Eagles. In total, 25 species of raptor have been recorded making the 25-kilometre crossing between Europe and Africa, the most numerous of which are Honey Buzzard and Black Kite, which can often be seen in flocks containing hundreds of birds.

During March, Black Kite is the dominant species, although this is also the best month for Osprey, Short-toed Eagle and Lesser Kestrel. Species diversity usually reaches a peak in late March, when fifteen species may be seen in a single day, but the quantity of birds rises in April when as many as a thousand may pass over daily.

By May, most migrants are Honey Buzzards. Numbers are even higher during the autumn when the greatest diversity of species passes through in late September.

Operators: Birding the Straight, Inglorious Bustards, Andalucía Nature Trips.

Ebro Delta

Pic: Javier Elorriaga

Pic: Javier Elorriaga

Although somewhat overshadowed by Doñana National Park, the Ebro Delta is one of the finest wetland areas in Spain. Situated on the Mediterranean coast, the delta consists of rice fields, reed beds, riverine woodland, regularly flooded scrubland and, closer to the sea, channels and lagoons with saltmarsh, dunes and sandy beaches.

More than 300 bird species have been recorded and a range of species can be seen all year.

Breeders include various herons, Red-crested Pochard, Western Swamphen, Audouin’s and Slender-billed Gulls and Gull-billed and Whiskered Terns. Black-winged Stilt, Avocet and Collared Pratincole also breed, whilst Glossy Ibis and Flamingo have done so in the past.

Summering raptors include Montagu’s Harrier, Short-toed and Booted Eagles. Red-necked Nightjar and Bee-eater are present in summer and passerines include Greater and Lesser Short-toed Larks, Zitting Cisticola, Moustached and Savi’s Warblers, Bearded Reedling and Spotless Starling. Passage often brings Marsh and Broad-billed Sandpipers, as well as Red-footed Falcon. More than 20,000 birds usually winter in the area including grebes, waterfowl, gulls and waders.

Operators: Boletas Birdwatching Centre, Birding in Spain

Aragon

With the adjoining Pyrenees National Park across the French border, the Ordesa National Park is the largest protected area in the Pyrenees. Long renowned for its exceptional beauty and fascinating range of plants and animals, the area has extensive beech forests and pinewoods, several caves, fast-flowing rivers and glaciers.

The area is famous for raptors, particularly Bearded Vulture, but others include Golden Eagle, Goshawk and, in summer, Egyptian Vulture. Other montane birds include Ptarmigan, Water Pipit, Alpine Accentor, Wallcreeper and Snowfinch. Both choughs occur and Alpine Swift and Crag Martin are common. The forests are home to Capercaillie, Black Woodpecker and Citril Finch.

The area around Jaca is probably the best birding area in the entire Pyrenean range, with most specialities and a range of other birds within easy reach.

Pic: Javier Elorriaga

Pic: Javier Elorriaga

One of the best-known birding sites is San Juan de la Pena, west of Jaca, where Bearded, Griffon and Egyptian Vultures are virtually guaranteed and eagles include Short-toed, Golden, Booted and Bonelli’s. These can all be seen from the monastery, as well as both choughs, Rock Sparrow and Rock Bunting.

Birds in surrounding forests include Black and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers, Western Bonelli’s Warbler, Crested Tit, Short-toed Treecreeper and Citril Finch. About ten kilometres further west is the Hecho Valley, which is one of the lowest parts of the Pyrenees to have regular Wallcreeper, at the Boca del Infierno, as well as many other typical Pyrenean birds. Higher parts of the valley host Ptarmigan, Alpine Accentor and Snowfinch. Griffon Vultures breed on the flat-topped Pena de Oroel, just south of Jaca, and the woods here are good for Black Woodpecker.

Operators: Boletas Birdwatching Centre

If you are seeking an alternative way to search for birdwatching holidays and tours in Spain with the ability to read Wildlife Reviews, download itineraries and book directly with birding day trips starting from €55 visit the Blue Sky Wildlife website now.

 

 

 

 

Watching geese in Holland

Just a 45-minute flight away from central London lies a birding secret. Tens of thousands of wild geese feed in the fields of this flat land in the winter. They are the star attraction. Thousands... tens of thousands... even hundreds of thousands of Barnacle, Brent and White-fronted Geese stretch for distances that defy belief, making for a very noisy experience. Add to these species Bean, Pink-footed, Greylag, Canada, and Pale-bellied Brent Geese and you have a veritable feast of Ansers and Brantas. In February, when I visited, I saw Barnacle, Brent, Pink-footed, Greater White-fronted, Greylag, Bean and Canada. Also apparently present but evading our keen eyes were Lesser White-fronted, Red-breasted and Ross’s.

Leading my three-day whistlestop tour was Pieter van der Luit of Birding Holland. His 20+ years of Dutch birding experience was a massive help to a visiting birder like me. It was late on our first day – and it was cold. Very cold. The nearby sea was frozen as far as the eye could see, and there was nothing to stop the biting wind from chilling us to the bone. But we waited. Very soon, those huddled masses would be heading for their roosts and we wanted to be there to see it happen. We didn’t have to wait for long.

As one, a group of 25-30,000 Barnacle geese took to the sky, swirling in a loop until every one of their number was present. Then, just as we’ve seen Starlings do in life or nature documentaries, they moved as one noisy, swirling black mass, over our heads. While the Netherlands may not boast a massive bird list, dripping with endemics, nor feature exotic, outlandish species, a world away from our own birds, what it does offer is an unforgettable experience. There was a bit of a twitch going on, just a short drive from Rotterdam airport when I arrived. A White-headed Duck had arrived the day before. So, shortly after my touchdown in a Dutch town (I thangyoo) I was joining in. The White-headed showed obligingly for the many camera-wielding birders, all of us wrapped up well against the bitter cold. This lakeside stop also saw us tick Black-necked Grebe, along with a host of familiar duck species.

From there it was a short hop to a local woodland, where Pieter said we had a good chance of seeing Tawny Owl. This was the first of many times when it was clear Pieter really did know his patch – hidden from the view of many walkers, in a spot where only someone with massive local knowledge would find it, was indeed a Tawny Owl. For the first day of our trip we were joined by ace Dutch photographer Menno van Duijn (www.mvdphoto.com) who not only took some brilliant photos of the birds we saw, including the Tawny Owl, but knew a thing or two himself and was happy to share his knowledge.

Next stop: Amsterdam. Most visitors to the Netherlands don’t make it any further than Amsterdam, which is a shame, but understandable, as the Dutch capital’s charms are well documented. For birders, Amsterdam is gull city – and one gull in particular stood out from the crowd when we got there. Among the raucous Black-headeds, Commons and Herrings skating on the partially frozen canals, was a calm, creamy-coloured, white-winged bird: Iceland Gull. While gull-watching is the Amsterdam birder’s main pastime, the greys and whites are brightened up by flashes of luminous green; London isn’t the only European capital swarming with Ring-necked Parakeets. From the bicycle-laden streets and frozen canals of Amsterdam we headed north to the region of Friesland. While we’re travelling, let’s clear up the whole Holland/Netherlands thing. South Holland and North Holland are just two regions in the west of the Netherlands. Amsterdam is in North Holland, which is why it’s ok to say you’ve been to Holland if you’ve been to the capital, but not if you’ve been to Arnhem, which is in Gelderland. Still with me? Good.

Friesland is a land of agriculture (Frisian cattle, see?) and its many vast, flat fields are the perfect base for grazing geese and swans. Mute, Whooper and Bewick all allow close-up views, giving a great opportunity for some ID exercises, as well as the incredible spectacle described earlier. The following morning we hit the road again, and once more Pieter’s guiding expertise came to the fore. As if the Long-eared Owl we photographed at one of Pieter’s trusted spots wasn’t enough, as we made our way back to the car, we got a tantalising glimpse of a Firecrest and the unexpected bonus of a soaring Goshawk. A town park held a thriving population of Hawfinch and Siskin, and we then drove to a woodland where we stood a fairly good chance of seeing Black Woodpecker and Crested Tit. These were two birds I had told Pieter I would really like to see, but he warned me that a sighting of either was far from guaranteed. The drive was a long one, and tense, as we also waited for news of any Waxwings passing through. Nevertheless, as with all the drives on my trip, there was plenty to look at. Buzzards were everywhere. At times it seemed like every other streetlight and tree was occupied by one.

So then, these woodpeckers... I tried not to get my hopes up, but I failed. I just can’t get enough of woodpeckers, and Black Woodpeckers just looked so good in my fieldguide. As we walked quietly through the woods, Pieter gave a couple of calls – doing a remarkably good job of imitating the birds. They called back and we upped our pace, heading in the direction of the sound. As we stood in a clearing, ears cocked to the treetops, a little movement caught my eye and there, on an overhanging branch was a cheeky little Crested Tit, twitching to and fro with its rockabilly quiff. Then came another, closer woodpecker call, then a flash of black and that glaring red crown, and we faced a dash to find out where the bird had gone before the dark set in and it retired to its nesthole for the night. We peered round a tree trunk, trying to breathe as silently as possible, as both male and female Black Woodpecker put on a great show for us, hopping up trunks, drumming, and flying back and forth. A magical bird. Our final day was another goose-fest, as we returned to the open fields to get up close to this spectacle of nature. What we didn’t bargain for was a very rare encounter with an incredibly secretive bird. In a ditch at the side of the road stood a Jack Snipe, bobbing and feeding as if starring in a documentary on Jack Snipe feeding behaviour. It was a real treat to see such a skulking bird in the open and just one of many memories that will live with me for many years to come.

JACK THORPE


Jack travelled with Birding Holland

Atlantic France

Mike Unwin meets the birds and the people looking to provide a better future for them



This article first appeared in the March 2014 issue of Bird Watching. You can download back issues for iPad, iPhone and Android devices from the Apple App Store and Google Play.

The young bagueur – that’s ringer, to you and me, looked up and beckoned me: “Regardez...” He rummaged in his lucky dip of a cloth bag then produced a small fluttering wader, legs gently pinioned between thumb and forefinger. “C’est un bécasseau variable.”

I didn’t need a translator to tell me that this was a Dunlin. But it was a bird I was used to seeing as one of a distant flock of anonymous, drab little waders. Now, at point-blank range in the hands of its French captor, it was exquisite. I drank in the bright eye, stippled breast, chestnut-fringed scapulars and coal-black belly. It was feisty, too, flapping vigorously, impatient to make up time and get back on track to Siberia.

This was an early morning in early May, on the coastal marshes of the Reserve Naturelle Moëze-Olèron in the Poitou Charentes region of Atlantic France. The bagueur was one of a small team who had been working all night to ring the migratory waders that drop by on their annual odyssey to Arctic breeding grounds.

Soon the team was packing up, heading for a coffee. The last Dunlins – now ringed, their biometrics recorded – were released. Some simply walked out of their opened bags on the ground, as though to continue the journey on foot, before overcoming their temporary befuddlement and taking flight. The night’s haul had comprised some 260 birds, mostly Knot, Dunlin and Black-tailed Godwit. All part of ongoing research to find out just how important the marshes are to their long-distance visitors.

The Poitou-Charentes coastline is riddled with wetlands and coastal lagoons that offer perfect pit-stops for passing migrants. But this particular reserve has the added bonus of being right on the doorstep of France’s premier conservation society. The LPO – Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux – is the Gallic equivalent of the RSPB and has its headquarters in nearby naval Rochefort. What’s more, it’s within easy reach of our shores. A Eurostar hop to Paris, followed by an extremely comfortable SNCF train south-west, had got me to this historic naval town by late afternoon the day before. I’d even spied Montagu’s Harrier and Golden Oriole from the window.

That evening, I’d enjoyed dinner just outside town at the charming home of Alison Duncan and her husband, two among roughly 40,000 Brits to have made their home in Poitou-Charentes. Alison works for the LPO, which celebrated its centenary in 2012 and, by coincidence, has roughly 40,000 members. This may seem small beer compared with the RSPB, but she explained how membership is rising nationally while, locally, some important environmental projects have helped get the community onside. As we chatted on the terrace, Nightingale song exploded from every thicket and Turtle Doves purred from the trees beyond, both species having just arrived in big numbers during the last few days. “They keep you up all night,” said Alison, of the latter. But I suspect she’d have it no other way.

The evening had been an eloquent reminder of the feathered riches of this part of the world, where farmland and birdlife still seem more compatible than on our side of the Channel. By the time Alison had reeled off some of the other local birds, including Stone-curlews in the surrounding fields and a winter roost of Long-eared Owls that have been known to tap at her kitchen window, I was already regretting that my visit would last only three days.

After bidding the bagueurs goodbye, I continued with guide Nathalie Bourret on a tour of Moëze-Olèron. We followed farm tracks past lush polders, where Corn Buntings and Yellow Wagtails sung from fenceposts and Marsh Harriers cruised the dykes. A quick scan from a wooden viewing platform revealed Shelduck, Little Egrets and a distant Spoonbill dotting the watery landscape with white. Nathalie told me how winter brings thousands of Greylag Geese and Pintail to these marshes. Binoculars revealed two White Storks clattering amorous bills high on their nest platform.

From a roadside hide we took a closer peek at one of the pools. Marsh Frogs croaked lustily, their tympana inflating like helium balloons, and a rare European Pond Terrapin plopped into the water from its log. While Nathalie explained how Purple Herons and Bitterns breed in these reedbeds, I watched Redshank working the shallows and a Snipe crouching at the back. Meanwhile, a Kingfisher dashed along a ditch, a Hoopoe flopped out of some nearby poplars and a Zitting Cisticola rose into the air, peeping monotonously.

The road ended at a tidal creek, from where a wooden boardwalk led onto the saltmarsh. Nathalie’s distracted air suggested she was trying to find me something. An interpretation board gave the game away. “Vous connaissez sans doute le rougegorge,” it read, meaning: “No doubt you’re familiar with the robin” (literally “red-throat”). “Mais avez-vous vu la gorgebleue a miroir?” Sure enough, a Stonechat-like ‘tutting’ betrayed a pristine male Bluethroat flashing his finery from a fence post. I enjoyed a quick view of the brilliant bib, complete with white ‘miroir’, before, caterpillar in bill, this avian A-lister disappeared into the scrub. Back in Rochefort, Alison gave us a quick tour of the LPO premises. Behind imposing sandstone walls, decorated with terns in flight, was a hive of activity and resources. As well as information about the local reserves, I found colourful displays illustrating ambitious projects further afield, including Lammergeier reintroduction in the Alps.

From Rochefort it was a 20-minute drive up the coast to our next stop, the Reserve Naturelle Marais D’Yves. At the modest visitor centre, an interpretation board boasted that the reserve’s rich soils support 574 plant species, including such gems as Seashore Iris, as well as 31 butterflies, 21 mammals, six reptiles and eight amphibians. This biodiversity seemed amazing for such a small patch of land.

Meanwhile, the tail end of the spring migration was still bringing in its share of feathered travellers. As visitor guide Jean-Paul Pillon led us out towards the coastal lagoons, pointing out the Highland cattle that munched away as part of the habitat management regime, I spied atop a low bush the upright silhouette of a shrike. The rufous crown identified it instantly as a Woodchat, so I was a little thrown when Jean-Paul lowered his binoculars and proclaimed “pie-griéche ecorcheur,” which, in my book, translates to Red-backed. Only then did I realise that there were two shrikes – one of each – two bushes apart.

Nightingales hollered from the thickets as we approached a wooden hide and it took a keen ear to pick out other voices: the frantic chatter of a Melodious Warbler; the abrupt jumble of a Cetti’s. Seated inside, we gazed out onto a mosaic of lagoons, where islands were loaded with waders: Black-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Grey Plover and Redshank. A cloud of Knot swept in over the sea wall, flashing and wheeling like a shoal of fish.

The next day, a more leisurely start allowed me to savour breakfast at the Hotel Roca Fortis, my bolthole in the heart of Rochefort. “Ah, les oiseaux,” observed my waiter as, through a mouthful of pain-au-chocolat, I explained the purpose of my trip. “Les Anglais aiment toujours les oiseaux.”

Bird nuts we may be, but it would have been a crime to visit Rochefort without exploring its rich heritage. The town came to prominence in the 17th Century as an arsenal for the French navy, its position on a meander loop of the Charentes, just inland from the sea, keeping it out of range of British gunships. My guide Christine Lacaud led me among the elegant stone buldings, visiting the Musée de la Marine, the Corderie Royale – where ropes were made for the navy, and which was at one time the longest 18th Century building in Europe – and the harbour. We then hopped aboard one of the regular ferries to the Île D’Aix, a tiny island just north of Rochefort on which, in 1806, Napoleon spent his last nights on French soil before the British carted him off to exile on St Helena. With no cars permitted, we meandered around the island on hired bicycles and from the return ferry I watched an Arctic Skua harassing Sandwich Terns against a glowering storm sky.

With an hour before sunset, we headed back through Rochefort to the Station de Lagunage, on the banks of the Charentes. A wastewater treatment plant may not top every tourist agenda: raw sewage, after all, struggles to compete with 18th Century galleons and a plate of fruits de mer. But this innovative facility, powered by its own renewable energy, is packed with birds. From the environmental education centre, we followed a boardwalk down to the settling ponds, passing chuntering Great Reed Warblers and an inquisitive Weasel.

Among the throng of waders, Black-tailed Godwits dominated, glowing auburn in the evening light, while Avocets, Greenshank and Black-winged Stilts picked their way through the crowd, Whiskered Terns fluttered over the water and a Black-necked Grebe popped up among the Shovelers at the back.

Early the next day, I was back on the train to Paris. A quick trawl of the internet will doubtless suggest that my three days had barely scratched the surface of birding in Poitou-Charentes. Out on the nearby Île de Ré, for instance, I could have found excellent sea-watching and three species of breeding harriers; inland, at Vienne,

I might have tracked down breeding Little Bustard and Ortolans. But, hey, I’d seen plenty of birds. And, what’s more, I was departing with a headful of Napoleon, a bellyful of French cuisine and a sense that the enormous riches of this place – both natural and cultural – were tailor-made for my next family holiday.


Mike Unwin travelled as a guest of Tourism Poitou-Charentes. For further information on holidays and birdwatching in Atlantic France and the Rochefort area, visit:

www.holidays-france-atlantic.com

www.rochefort-ocean.com

www.raileurope.com

The French Pyrenees

Sometimes, for a happy family life, you have to make concessions. If you don’t make the dinner, you do the washing-up. If you go to the football, it’s your turn to pick up your child from the school disco. If you spend the whole weekend birding... Well, let’s not go there. But it can work both ways – if your other half wants a quiet family holiday, you can earn brownie points by agreeing, while still allowing yourself a great birding break. Everyone’s a winner.

One ideal place to mix a great family holiday with some easy casual birding is the French Pyrenees. Not only are there birds almost everywhere you look, but many of them are species you’d be exceptionally lucky to see on your average local patch here. I flew, with my wife, Sam, and six-year-old daughter Emily, to Pau-Pyrenees airport, which is within three hours’ drive of Bordeaux and Carcassonne, two hours from Toulouse and under an hour’s drive from the tourist hotspot of Lourdes.

Our destination was Puydarrieux, a village an hour and a quarter from the airport and a short walk from the large Lake Puydarrieux, which has seen more than 200 bird species recorded since it was created in 1987. The star birding attraction around here comes every winter, when close to 1,000 Cranes fill the surrounding fields – a sight which even the local non-birders just have to sit back and watch in awe.

We visited in early May, when the Cranes would have been on their breeding grounds in Northern Europe, replaced at the lake by trees full of singing warblers. Just down the road from the lake and its surrounding woodland is Tresbos farmhouse, where we stayed. This fantastic house has four double bedrooms, two large bathrooms, a modern kitchen, outdoor eating area, heated swimming pool, huge garden, bicycles and dozens of toys and games for kids.

The garden boasts a view of the lake to the east and the snow-capped Pyrenees to the south – and is also the place where we saw three of our trip’s most memorable birds. But more of that later. The first thing that strikes you as you drive from the airport is that Black Kites and Buzzards are as common a sight as Carrion Crows or Rooks back home. It really is quite something to park up at a hypermarche and watch a Black Kite soaring low over your head. You have to keep reminding yourself you’re only a short distance from home.

As you head onto quieter, more rural roads, the birding changes. The kites and Buzzards remain, but they are joined by countless Stonechats, which fly up from the verges as you pass, perching on overhead cables to form a mini guard of honour. On the ground, hares dash across fields and, if you’re lucky, you may see a Wild Boar or two in the woodland fringes.

So, back to those garden birds at the farmhouse... The most common birds in the garden were White Wagtails and Goldfinches, but one regular visitor was a striking male Black Redstart, joined later in the week by its mate. We saw one or both of these birds each day, as they flitted between posts, walls and trees within the grounds. In fact it was while attempting to digiscope one of the flitty, flicky Black Redstarts that I saw the second of those three gorgeous garden visitors. Just behind a branch recently vacated by the redstart was a bigger, plumper, peachy-looking bird. It took only a glance through my bins to recognise my first ever Red-backed Shrike. I grabbed as many phone-digiscoped shots as I could, standing in the rain, sans jacket, to make sure I absorbed every moment of this chance encounter. I didn’t realise this masked character would reappear in our garden three or four more times during our stay.

Down at the lake, the sightings board revealed recent visits by Booted Eagle, Snipe, Purple Heron, Night Heron and Marsh Harrier. I saw plenty of Black Kites, a handful of Red Kites, bundles of Buzzards and a single, soaring Honey Buzzard – confirmed by the friendly reserve warden. The lake is exceptionally serene. To protect the wildlife, there’s no access to much of the shore, and there are no hides, just an information board and a hut where the warden makes coffee and records the birds.

The trees and scrub around the lake bristle with birdsong. Chiffchaff and Whitethroat were the most vocal and identifiable, while from somewhere deep in the woods a Cuckoo rang out its familiar call. Closer to the lake was a bird I found harder to ID. But a listen to the calls on my mp3 player and a flick through my Collins Guide revealed it to be a Melodious Warbler. Another lifer. The ease with which such birds could be seen in roadside trees and fields meant that trips to Lannemezan, Auch and Trie-sur-Baïse – each with its own fantastic market – became birding trips in their own right.

The owners of Tresbos, Andy and Vicki Coleman, provide a folder full of useful information and suggestions – one of which is a daytrip for tapas in Spain. An hour and a half away is the town of Bossost, essentially set up as a tourist trap for people looking to add another country to their list. There’s a selection of shops selling Flamenco dolls, bull keyrings and castanets, and a few bars offering tasty tapas.

But, for the birder, the main attraction is a fast-flowing, rocky river. While Emily explored a nearby playground, I took a few minutes to just sit and watch Swallows skim the surface of the river and Grey Wagtails hop from rock to rock. Fast-flowing, crystal-clear water, altitude, rocks... it seemed like perfect Dipper country – and right on cue, a chestnut brown dart flew past, landing on a rock just the other side of the river, before plunging beneath the white-rippled water. It was pretty close to being the birding highlight of the trip but, wait, I’ve only told you about two of our garden visitors.

The third of the garden trio was the bird I had hoped to see, and one I had to call Sam and Emily to see, too. No-one should miss out on a Hoopoe feeding on the lawn, just 20 metres away. Magic.

JACK THORPE

Birding in the Dordogne

Every year, 200,000 Brits pass through Bergerac airport in the Dordogne, drawn in by the scenery, the cuisine and the long, warm summers (not to mention mild winters). But an increasingly large percentage of visitors are also starting to take notice of the incredible birdlife in the region.

Perhaps surprisingly, Dordogne has more to offer in this respect than many French rural areas. This is due to the diversity of habitats found here, despite being a landlocked region. For example, special birds include Common Crane, Eagle Owl, Little Bustard, Short-toed Eagle, Montagu’s Harrier, Dartford Warbler, Woodchat Shrike, Alpine Swift, Black and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers, Tawny Pipit, Subalpine Warbler and Ortolan Bunting. With a bit of local knowledge, timing and luck, a good range of species can be found, including some of the more sought-after ones.

The region is predominantly limestone countryside with mixed forest and farmland habitats above the main river valleys and dramatic cliffs lining the rivers in places. However in the west of the region lie additional interesting habitats: pine forest with mixed woodland on sands with areas of heathland in the central west and secondly arable plains in the south-west and north-west of the region. Driving is a pleasure, with so few cars on the road and the landscape beautiful with low hills, pretty little hamlets and villages of honey-coloured stone houses and scattered traditional farms.

For birding, the best time to visit is between April and June. In and around most villages you can find Hoopoe, Serin, Cirl Bunting, Tree Sparrow and Black Redstart. Hoopoe usually inhabit the edge of villages where there are lawns for feeding and old trees and outhouses for nesting.

Their persistent hollow ‘hoo-hoo-hoo’ call can be heard from mid March. Serins like fir trees and telephone wires in similar areas, from where their fast scratchy/jingly song is often delivered – or in a song flight. Tree Sparrows can be found among the House Sparrows in village centres whilst Black Redstarts choose rooftops from which to sing their strange crackly-ending song. In the fields surrounding villages and towns Cirl Buntings are common, the yellow and black-faced males sitting on top of bushes in spring delivering their rattling song.

The classic Dordogne habitat is the forest and field complex which covers much of the area. Commoner species in these habitats include Nightjar, Woodlark, Tree Pipit, Stonechat, Cuckoo, Golden Oriole, Melodious Warbler, Whitethroat, Nightingale and Cirl Bunting. Golden Oriole are easier heard than seen! They usually arrive in late April after the leaves open and the tree canopy closes. Listen out for a tropical sounding fluty four-note whistle. Red-backed Shrike can be found in scrubby patches amongst the rough grassland.

Short-toed Treecreepers sing constantly in spring and Firecrest are also common, though their high-pitched rattle may be hard to hear. Blackcaps, Chiffchaffs and Bonelli’s Warbler are the common warblers – the latter arrives in early April and is easily located with its short trill. It replaces the Willow Warbler this far south.

Woodpeckers are well-represented with Green and Great-spotted very common. Black Woodpeckers have recently colonised Dordogne and are best searched for (like all woodpeckers) in early spring when they are most vocal and territorial. Middle Spotted are thinly scattered in older woods and parkland throughout the area, listen out for their constant, quickly repeated ‘kuk kuk kuk’ call. Lesser Spotted occur along the river valleys but are never common. In 2000 I was lucky enough to find a Grey-headed Woodpecker in the south of the area – a very rare bird. Wrynecks also nest across the region though they are perhaps more frequent on passage. Buzzards and Sparrowhawks are common but Honey Buzzards are also present though inconspicuous. Their plaintive wader-like two-note whistle ‘pee-loo’ is most likely to draw attention to them.

Dropping down into the river valleys of the Dordogne and Vézère is another interesting bird community. All along the valleys are Black Kites nesting in loose colonies in riverside woods. One of the best ways to see them is on the ‘gabarre’ boat trip from Bergerac old town.

Crag Martins are common and even nest on the church in Lalinde and on Perigueux cathedral. A few pairs of Alpine Swift nest in Beynac and Roque Gageac but they are not easy to pick out amongst the other hirundines. In sunny warm weather they can be flying very high! Surprisingly, Dippers nest on some side streams upriver from Bergerac. Great White Egrets are regular from late summer until spring. On the stony islands at Mauzac, Little Ringed Plovers nest – as do Cetti’s Warblers in the adjacent marsh, which is also a nature reserve.

Eagle Owls are perhaps the most spectacular species nesting in this area. In 2009, six pairs were believed to be nesting, having gradually re-colonized the region since 2000. The best time to find them is early in the year when they commence nesting and the males are territorial and booming out their very deep resonant ‘oo-oo’ at dusk. Also in the winter months small numbers of Wallcreeper inhabit the cliffs and large stone buildings around Les Eyzies. By early April any remaining males look resplendent in their breeding plumage.

Less well-known are the arable plains in the south-west and north-west of the area and across into the Lot and Lot et Garonne départements. These areas are dotted with small areas of woodland, rough grassland and scrub, together with hay meadows. They harbour an interesting bird community including harriers and species such as Tawny Pipit. On a sunny afternoon in summer the temperature can be almost unbearable and birds non-existent. But return early or late in the day and it can be very productive. Quails call from the fields ‘whit whit whit’ whilst a curlew-like call will be a Stone Curlew; small numbers breed here. There are still a few pairs of Tawny Pipits on short dry grasslands, pale wagtail-like pipits with a wagtail-like call. Small hamlets or isolated buildings with stone walls sometimes harbour Rock Sparrows.

In the extreme south-east of our region a few pairs of Ortolan Bunting hang on. Listen out for the first few notes of Beethoven’s Fifth to locate one!

Short-toed Eagle nest in small numbers across the Dordogne, normally on high ground in dense forest, adjacent to open hunting grounds.

At migration times a whole range of other species pass through the region. Osprey, Red Kite, Honey Buzzard and Crane can be common but other raptors like Booted Eagle and Marsh Harrier and smaller birds like Bee-eater and Crossbill are also possible. Pied Flycatchers are often very common in late summer. A visit to one of the reservoirs, mainly located in the south-west of the region, can be rewarding for waders and other wetland species.

DAVID SIMPSON


David has recently had his guidebook, Birding Dordogne, published by BirdGuides. He runs a holiday cottage for wildlife lovers in Dordogne, as well as leading guided tours and wildlife holidays. David is now taking bookings for 2012. For further information email audave2505@yahoo.fr